NMFS and USFWS might have an easier time keeping the Sacramento river cool for salmon if Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District weren’t losing 170,000 acre-feet of water every summer from their unlined canals and over-irrigation. (Slide 13).
For some reason, I find myself called to write about Westlands Water District today. You may have seen that in 2007 WWD gave a former deputy manager a personal loan of $1.4M at 0.84%, and hasn’t seen the need to be repaid for that loan yet. One and a half million dollars would buy a whole lot of house in Cantua Creek City or Three Rocks, although we know that Mr. Peltier, gritty man of agriculture, chose to buy a lot of house in Walnut Grove instead. It doesn’t appear that WWD properly disclosed the loan, but we’re used to WWD defying disclosure rules. So we will skip over petty, small-minded, literalist discussions of fraud, perjury, and fiduciary misbehavior. Why linger on ugly details? Instead, let’s talk about money, power and dominance.
NOTE: For the discussion below, I am talking about public perception within the water field. I am not an insider at any of the districts I’m about to discuss. I don’t know any of the managers or staff personally; I haven’t been introduced to them, even. I am asserting what I believe to be the mainstream opinion of water professionals.
Westlands is widely described as “powerful”. Their managers worked at high levels in George Bush’s administration; when the Bush administration ended, WWD was there to hire all the influence it could. Westlands maintains a stable of lobbyists, and funds faux-grass roots public information campaigns. Westlands makes extensive political donations. Their ability to be heard in Washington is reflected in the unfortunate deal Pres. Obama’s Interior Department made.
But when I look at that list, the thought that keeps coming back to me is that Westlands Water District is bleeding money. For all of that talk of power, they have to pay and pay and pay to maintain it. They aren’t buying particularly good power, either. Their purchases aren’t buying any popular support, good press, any diversity of friendships, good access to Gov. Brown’s administration. It isn’t buying them the prudent anonymity of the other west side districts that never show up in the press. Their power isn’t winning them state grants or other incoming money. They just pay out the ass for their manager dudes to talk to like-minded political dudes in Washington.
I want to contrast that with the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority. A check tells me that they do hire lobbyists, but I’ve never heard of SAWPA being described as inherently powerful. What I do know about them is that they rake in money. They get grants. They are named recipients in (attempted) bond measures. They win awards. So which is the powerful agency here? The widely disliked one that bleeds money for political access? Or the friendly one that sweetly and relentlessly brings in money?
Which brings me to the approaches used by the two agencies. Westlands Water District is going for dominance. They have chosen to buy the influence to force their agenda through in political capitols. They are also, frankly, powerful male assholes talking to other powerful male assholes. When I’ve seen them at conferences, they schmooze with the big boys. SAWPA’s approach is collaboration, written all over their front page. I haven’t participated in their processes, so I can’t tell you how deep that runs. But when I see their managers at conferences, they talk to all comers. Scared young brown student at their first conference? They’re welcoming. They naturally catch up with their (male and female) friends and colleagues from over the years. By all appearances, they are friendly and broadly engaged. Which means that when politics is giving out money, they don’t have to buy as much access or fake public support.
Westlands WD’s power is naturally limited to the total political power of like-minded politicians, which ebbs and flows and can be blocked by opposing political groups. It is also amazingly expensive. Mr. Peltier’s loan alone cost Westlands’ farmers about $2.5/irrigated acre in 2007. The power of a collaborative approach is limited by the friends the members of SAWPA can make, and it brings in money. If Westlands stops buying access, what other kinds of power would it have left? If SAWPA stopped paying lobbyists, what other kinds of power would it have left?
Perhaps you have heard that Mr. Trump discussed our water issues at a rally in Fresno. His policy statements change by the moment, but I do like them as his barometer for what the crowd wants to hear. He has a genius for reducing any issue down to the purest synthesis of what his crowd wants to hear. Before he gets back to talking about himself, Mr. Trump says of the drought:
We’re going to solve your water problem. You have a water problem that is so insane. It is so ridiculous. Where they’re taking the water and shoving it out to sea.
And I just met with a lot of the farmers, who are great people, and they’re saying we don’t even understand it, they don’t understand it, nobody understands it. And I’ve heard this from other friends of mine in California where they have farms up here and they don’t get water.
I said, oh, that’s too bad, is it a drought? “No, we have plenty of water” and I said well what’s wrong and they said well we shove it out to sea. And I said why? And nobody even knows why and the environmentalists don’t know why. Now they’re trying to protect a certain kind of three-inch fish. But…
No, no think of it. So nobody even knows why. And by the way the environmentalists don’t know why. [emphasis added]
Mr. Trump’s assessment of what will please his crowd in Fresno is an assertion that the policies that are guiding State drought management are beyond reason, beyond understanding, unknown even to the practitioners of these policies. These words reassure his crowd that it is OK that they don’t understand, because State water management is objectively not understandable. So what is it that they don’t understand?
One possibility is that Mr. Trump’s receptive audience doesn’t understand how we arrived at pumping restrictions. I get that. I do. The chain of events goes: loss of habitat and bottleneck at the pumps => endangered species listing for smelt => biological opinions => upheld by courts and the National Academy of Science review => we can only pump when there aren’t any smelt near the pumps. That isn’t straightforward. It has developed over years; I wouldn’t expect anyone who isn’t a water junkie to have kept track. However, this is not beyond any understanding; professionals in the field understand it. Mr. Trump might mean, ‘it can’t be explained to me in thirty seconds’, which is not the same thing as ‘no one knows why’. It isn’t beyond reason, either. All the steps in the political processes and scientific analyses have all been incremental and upheld by our agreed upon public governance methods.
It is more likely that what Mr. Trump is reassuring his audience is that the values that guide recent water management are inexplicable. That valuing a three-inch fish is inherently unreasonable, so much so that even environmentalists “don’t know why”. (Maybe they meant to value some big charismatic fish and got accidently carried away!! It could happen!) The invaluable Mr. Fitchette expounds on a similar view, that different underlying values are plain wrong.
Now Mr. Trump is a demagogue and a good one. But the thing that interests me is that while he gets cheers from saying that “no one knows” why the farm sector hasn’t gotten a full water allotment, his own crowd isn’t with him when he says “there is no drought.” Watch these 16 seconds. The crowd doesn’t applaud. The man behinds him looks up sharply, startled. The locals know; they can see the Sierras from their homes. They saw no snowpack last winter. They know the hills didn’t green over winter. They may enjoy being pandered to for an evening, but they don’t agree when he contradicts the facts they experienced. I don’t envy them their cognitive dissonance.
Had the State taken Integrated Regional Water Management as seriously as it is now taking groundwater sustainability, it would have required the establishment of “Regions” with powers and authorities like the new Groundwater Sustainability Agencies. Now that I see a serious effort, I am confirmed in my belief that IRWM wasn’t one.
Neither the Guardian nor the NY Times have accurately identified America’s first climate refugees. In 2015 the Guardian described the water rising in Yup’ik Eskimo villages, and villagers planning a move. This month, the NY Times discussed a grant given to Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw peoples in Louisiana to move in advance of sea level rise. The first American climate change refugees I know of are the farmworkers of the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, many of whom left in 2014 when drought eliminated the work available to them.
The workers, some in their 20s, some much older, men and women alike all wearing long sleeves, hats, and bandanas to protect them from the brutal sun, tell me this summer they’ve had to drive much longer distances to find work. They have friends and family who’ve already left for better work in Oregon and Washington. It’s hard for them to see their families and communities broken apart. Every last one of them is considering leaving the Central Valley.
The 2015 California Almond Acreage Report is out. Last year, while you were carrying your warm-up water out to the rose bushes, growers planted another sixty thousand acres of almonds.
California’s 2015 almond acreage is estimated at 1,110,000 acres, up 6 percent from the 2014 revised acreage of 1,050,000.
This acreage, planted in Drought Year Four, commits about 180,000 AF/year to those trees, a constant burden on groundwater basins and our political system for every one of the next twenty-five years. Had the Brown administration banned new permanent crops in basins with declining groundwater levels, that demand might be in annual crops, flexible in times of high climate variability.
I didn’t quite follow the transaction in this piece, by a guy who tried to go out and buy some water in the “water market”. Far as I can tell, because he said he’d leave it in the river, the tribe leased it to him for $1/AF. I did enjoy reading about the process.
I am not loving what I see from senatorial candidate Sanchez. I am looking forward to the water policy position papers from all the candidates, and hope that at least one of them will stake out some new ground. Now that Ted Cruz has chosen Carly Fiorina as his running mate to help him in California, I can remind you guys that Fiorina’s water policies were weak sauce.
Good luck to the students in Mr. Hollister’s Advanced Placement Environmental Science class! We’re all rooting for you! You are going to do great on the test next week.
- Around here, the existing order of things is to shit on the poor.
- When there are fewer resources, rich people at the top naturally keep what they have, which forces us middlemen to shit on the poor even more.
- Why, oh environmentalists, are you forcing us to shit on the poor even more [by restricting access to resources]? I thought you liked the poor, you liberal hypocrites.
The sucker’s response is to try to engage the third point. The real dispute is properly in the first or second point, invoking a different world, one that school superintendents and county supervisors should have the intellectual capacity and imagination to create. In that world, school superintendents or county supervisors could throw the weight of their elected offices into grant applications to the State Board’s water quality grants. It isn’t like the rich residents of Cantua Creek are inherently opposed to receiving government money. Or perhaps the irrigated farmland of Stanislaus and Merced shouldn’t be the fixed constraint, forcing the brunt of the groundwater loss onto poor schoolchildren. Given that less water and a poorer society is our future, now is a good time for local elected officials to practice finding ways to distribute the predictable shortfalls that don’t fall on the poor.
Note: Do watch County Supervisor Mendes shouting at citizens in a public county supervisors’ meeting, if you will. Of the two primary participants, one is emotionally uncontrolled, shouting at more vulnerable people based on abstract political beliefs. The other is calmly referring to a study, trying to empathize, and sticking to the direct facts of the situation. It is a shame the unhinged one is the one with power. I’d love to see that switched.
MORE NOTE: It took me a couple hours after writing the first draft to realize that Supervisor Mendes’ shouldn’t be invoking this argument in the first place. He is livid, shouting at Ms. Jagannath because he has wrongly connected Cantua City and El Porvenir’s water problems to Westlands WD’s supply limitations. If I understood the news story correctly, Cantua City and El Porvenir have enough water. They pay $110/month for it, although it is too polluted to drink or cook with. What they don’t have and can’t afford is water treatment. Their resource restriction is ‘additional money to pay for water treatment’, not water itself.
To recap, Supervisor Mendes is sufficiently enraged by a different political matter that he:
- Isn’t paying attention to which issue is in front of him;
- Evidently doesn’t know of the existing study addressing the water treatment options of Cantua City and El Porvenir. Was that done by his county’s own public works department? He doesn’t know or care.
- Lost all professional demeanor and shouted at the constituents before him, including personal abuse, on camera.
Small wonder he is too ashamed to watch the footage of the meeting he chaired. How terrible that his constituents know they risk being treated this way when they bring their issues to him.